Over 75 academics of Indian origin in Britain recently came out with an open letter in the British newspaper The Independent expressing how the idea of the BJP’s Narendra Modi coming to power in India fills them “with dread”. The academics went on to express concern over India’s democratic traditions and its secularism under a future Modi government.
This open letter is just the latest addition to a long narrative of fear and despair that has been the primary response of those who have deep, and justifiable, misgivings about Modi winning the present Lok Sabha elections and becoming the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. It is self-evident that the other side of the coin of Modi’s mass appeal has been the massive apprehension that has followed in the wake of his rise as the widely speculated leading prime ministerial candidate. But should such apprehensions give way to dread and fear? Or is fear as a response to Modi symptomatic of something else?
We have all heard that dictators are often elected democratically, but the much neglected corollary of this statement is that there are those democratic systems that enable a dictator to be elected. Whether Modi is – or will become – an autocratic leader is something that will always be debatable, since the question produces different answers depending on one’s priorities. But to be afraid of a figure like Modi is not only a tacit acceptance of the inevitability of his victory, but is also symptomatic of our mistrust of our constitutional and democratic machinery. How strong is a system if one man coming to power fills people with dread that he will undo its very foundations? Is one man’s mass appeal enough to make us afraid that he will change a system of pluralism, secularism and socialist democracy that has been in place for over sixty years?
Mass appeal seems to be the primary suspect. Any criticism of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate today is promptly countered by his supporters by demonstrating his mass appeal. Mass appeal and big numbers seem to validate any and every thing. It is perhaps the downside of a majoritarian system that right and wrong are eventually decided by numbers. But our constitution does not envision a majoritarian democracy, and our extensive machinery for the protection of minorities – in a nation of minorities– is testament to how we are supposed to be an inclusive welfare state and a federal consensus democracy. Given that, is our fear of Modi an indirect acceptance of the fact that we, and our elaborate system, boils down to being a simplistic majoritarian number game? If so, wouldn’t this fear signal the absolute failure of everything that our constitution stands for?
In a recent interview Narendra Modi went out of his way to assert how, if he comes to power, he will abide by the constitution and work within our constitutional framework. Quite apt for a champion of Hindutva, he called the Indian Constitution his ‘holy book’. This might be a token last minute gesture to allay the fears of those like the British academics that he will not destroy the very fabric of Indian culture and democratic tradition. But does that also mean that if he chooses to, he can destroy it? His legions of supporters might be as fickle as a Roman mob, but does our system allow a Caesar to rise?
The fear is still the main problem because power and hegemonic dominance work through fear. In our fear we are actually investing Modi with more power – pretty much telling him that he can actually destroy us and the nation. We must ask ourselves then, is dread our best response, even against the inevitable?
Our founding leaders reposed faith in the wisdom of an overwhelmingly illiterate electorate with full franchise at the time of Independence, despite large apprehensions about giving an uneducated person the right to vote. Perhaps the phenomenon of the rise of Narendra Modi is less important than the rise of this fear and dread. It becomes pertinent, and crucial, at this juncture to question our political system – our checks and balances – and to raise questions, not just on the man, but the country that is poised to elect such a man.
But the very worst thing we can do now is to despair, and to be afraid, as that is not the solution, and further undermines our own agency and power to do something about it. For the British academics, while their concern has its validity, dread was possibly the worst choice of words they could have used. Perhaps disappointment, or disdain- but we certainly mustn’t dread Modi, or any other.